UAE’s charming journey in Australia not over yet

It is not over yet, losing semi-finalists rarely look forward to the third-place play-off, but it is still an opportunity to sign off on a high note.

Ahmed Khalil lapses cost the UAE dear in the second Asian Cup semi-final against Australia. Courtesy UAE FA
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In the end, beating Australia was too big a mountain to climb.

The quarter-final win over Japan took a monumental physical and mental effort, and the UAE players had left everything on that pitch in Sydney.

In front of 21,079 in Newcastle yesterday, there was simply no more to give.

Two goals in the opening 15 minutes meant this match was over almost as soon as it began.

The UAE’s tired legs rallied in the second half but the truth was that Australia comfortably saw out the match.

At full-time, there was sadness but there was also a sense of acceptance.

“They were strong in the air, they took advantage of that to score the early goal,” said Mohaned Salem, the central defender and one of the UAE’s best players in Australia.

“That hit our confidence, but after they scored the second we slowly got back into the game.

“Playing in front of their own fans was a massive motivation for them. They were very strong, physically, and the team that plays better on the day is the team that gets to the final.”

There is no shame in losing to a host nation.

By getting to the semi-final, the UAE met Mahdi Ali’s expectation and exceeded almost everyone else’s.

It has been a journey with many highlights: Ahmed Khalil’s two goals in the 4-1 opening match win over Qatar; Ali Mabkhout’s sensational goal after 12 seconds against Bahrain, officially the fastest in Asian Cup history; Omar Abdulrahman’s perfect chip to set up that goal, surely the pass of the tournament.

There was Mahdi Ali’s tactical masterclass against Iran in which the UAE out-passed one of the tournament favourites 592 to 259 and had the possession statistic of 62 per cent, yet still lost to a goal in added time.

Then there was Sydney and the win against Japan, arguably the UAE’s finest result and one of the biggest shocks in the competition’s history.

Mabkhout’s volley for the early lead and Omar Abdulrahman’s impudent clipped pass, which the striker just failed to convert.

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There was Mohaned Salem and Mohammed Ahmed’s heroic defensive rearguard, and Omar’s Panenka penalty.

Then the most memorable moment when Ismail Ahmed smashed the winning penalty to vanquish the reigning champions.

It was a journey that saw the team play in four of the five host cities: Canberra, Brisbane, Sydney and Newcastle.

In each they charmed the locals, winning hearts and minds.

Mahdi Ali, translated his and his players comments from Arabic to English and vice versa, much to the delight and appreciation of the media.

Above all, in Australia, Asian football fell in love with Omar Abdulrahman, arguably the player of the competition.

It is not over yet, losing semi-finalists rarely look forward to the third-place play-off, but it is still an opportunity to sign off on a high note.

Only minutes after the semi-final defeat, Mahdi Ali was looking forward to managing his “group”, his thoughts turning to those that have patiently waited in the wings.

“Of course, this a good chance to give some of the other players a chance to play this game,” he said of the Friday match with Iraq.

“Especially that no matter what you do for the substitutes who don’t start games, like friendly matches, official games are something different.

“We have to give these players an opportunity and have to give a rest to some of the other players. There will be some changes but, as always, we will try to play our game and do our best.”

Beyond that, there will be preparations for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers starting in June, not that you would get Mahdi Ali to comment on it yet.

Ever the pragmatist, he would say what he always says – his only focus is on beating Iraq.

There will be plenty of time to reflect on a thoroughly satisfying experience in Australia once the squad touches down in Dubai next week.

Then, just maybe, look forward to an even brighter future.

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UAE verdict

Can have no complaints about the result but will curse the dismal start that saw them trail by two goals so early in the match. They never recovered. With a strangely subdued Australian crowd in Newcastle proving no factor at all, the UAE will regret not having another strong start to set panic in the opposition ranks.

Australia verdict

Deserved winners. Succeeded spectacularly in exploiting the UAE’s concerns over their aerial threat with the early goal. After the break were happy to let the UAE chase the game and hit them on the break.

Star man

Khamis Ismail While Omar Abdulrahman again provided the stand-out moments, he looked to be one of the few players in the team not feeling the after effects of the draining semi-final. Consistently energetic and strong in the tackle, he was more than up for the physical Australian challenge.

Underperformer

Ahmed Khalil Having started the tournament on fire, this was an inconsistent Khalil, below right, at his infuriating worst. Did well to hit the post for the UAE’s best chance, but twice he had the opportunity to provide chances for Ali Mabkhout and twice he held on to the ball too long. Hold-up play was as poor as it was against Japan.

Our verdict

A disappointing night for the UAE but an encouraging tournament with many high points. The wins against Qatar and Japan will live long in the memory. The squad continues to mature and Mahdi Ali has shown that he can tactically outsmart the best of coaches. A third-place finish would be a bittersweet reward for their efforts.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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